The Act of 1954
The 1954 Act in New Zealand reproduced the provisions as to libel in the Judicature Act 1908 (s. 101), the Legislature Act 1908 (ss. 254, 255, and 256), the Law of Libel Amendment Acts of 1910 and 1933, and s. 26 of the Statutes Amendment Act 1948. The only material amendment that has been made to the 1954 Act is in the Defamation Amendment Act 1958 which merely provides that the Crown is bound by the law as it stands. The law of libel in New Zealand, as in the United Kingdom, is in many respects still lacking in precision. Much dissatisfaction had been felt in New Zealand up to 1954 at what were generally regarded as some harsh and uncompromising provisions unduly favourable to plaintiffs, but with recent amendments it is today difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Law Draftsman has contrived to swing the balance in favour of defendants in some material respects. In fact, the point has been reached where a most jealous supervision by the Courts is more necessary than ever. Without rigid surveillance, the extension of the occasions of privilege to defame could significantly weaken the protection the State owes to the individual's common-law inheritance of a good name.
The issue in the language of current legislation is relatively simple. A defamatory statement, libellous or slanderous, is one which, if published, is calculated to expose the victim to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or is likely to disparage or injure him in his trade, business, profession, or relations with his fellow men. Actionable libel (written, printed, or published) and actionable slander (oral, or in some other impermanent form, such as sound, sign, or gesture) have been assimilated by the 1954 Act, so that it is no longer necessary to prove actual damage in an action for defamation. Previously to 1954, special damage did not have to be proved in actions for libel, but it was essential to a slander cause, except in certain exceptional circumstances. The result, therefore, of the new statute is that the somewhat disconcerting distinction between libel and slander has been removed.
The 1954 Act, which is a moderately compendious measure, defines the procedure of publication, the distinction between civil and criminal defamation, and sets out the categories of possible defences under such headings as justification, absolute privilege, qualified privilege, privileged reports, and fair comment. The law is reasonably unequivocal on these points, but it should be emphasised that proved malice destroys some very sound defences. For instance, malice, which must be proved by the plaintiff, effectively disposes of qualified privilege, although it is powerless to destroy absolute privilege. Similarly, malice rules out the defence of fair comment, which is concerned with expressions of opinion as opposed to assertions of fact. Criminal libel is distinguished from the civil variety in that before any action can be brought by way of indictment (or even in a summary fashion) it must be approved by a Judge of the Supreme Court or by a Magistrate. Proof of the truth of a statement is not a defence unless publication can be shown to have been for the public benefit or interest.